BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 23 (Part 2)

TITAN

Start at Chapter 1

Another section of the hull fractured and buckled under the weight of someone’s rage.

“It’s not a bluff,” Titan said. The smell of fear and desperation filled the bridge. “There are officers who could destroy this ship.”

“They won’t,” Lily said. “We’re allies of the Balaurs. Of the Sciarras! Of the Warmonger crews. No one would dare go to war with us again.” Her face turned dark with rage. “I have other allies. Other weapons. I’ll take them all out.” She whipped around. “Put that out,” she ordered the comtech. “Tell the Allied crews to back away or I’ll fire on their home ships. I’ll kill their children if I have to.”

“No!” Titan strained against his shackles. “Belay order!”

The comtech hesitated, torn between duty to crew and fleet.

Titan sucked in the hot, stale air. “You can’t. Lily, it’s not the Allied crews. Carver would never do this. The Captain’s Council would never allow an attack. They would never get together that fast. This is one person. One Elite.”

She narrowed her eyes. “I can destroy one person.”

“You can’t.” He shook his head, ready to beg. “If it’s who I think it is, she has a ship in orbit that will take us all down.” If it was Selena, she was probably expecting him to rescue himself. “Give me an open line. Let me talk to whoever is out there. I’ll negotiate. For you. Whatever it is you want, I’ll find a way to get it for you if you’ll let me stop this.”

The comtech jerked his chin in an eager nod. The rest of the crew had fallen silent. The Acontinum floated there, wrapped in a deadly cage of telekyen and power.

“Please?” His voice shattered with fear.

Lily drew in a deep breath and her rage returned. “You had your chance. You had thousands of chances to give us what we were owed! You’re a traitor, and I’ll see you die as one.” She nodded. “We don’t need to teleport out. Bring the secondary engines online.”

“The old garbage burners?” The comtech asked in confusion. “Do those work?”

“We used them a few times during the war. They’re slow, but they’ll get us over the wall.”

“But… the shield?”

Lily lifted her chin. “It’ll be down.”

The techs scurried, rushing to secure themselves as the old tub rumbled.

It was a fight they couldn’t win. Maybe with a good crew, an officer or two with elite ranking, and some backup they’d have some hope, but like this? “It’s suicide,” Titan said. “Surrender so your crew doesn’t suffer. Lily, you need to surrender. It’s the only choice.”

“Incoming message from the Golden Apple,” the comtech reported, sounding happier than he should. “They have a sniper trained on the person below. There’s obscuring shield, but they won’t be expecting a grounder weapon.”

Lily smiled down at him. “Surrender is for cowards and traitors. I’m neither. Mister Esmer, tell the gunnery crews to go to their stations. Let’s see what the Allies think when we show them how we’ve spent the last few years.”

“Aye, ma’am,” a deep voice said behind him.

The bridge blurred as war memories threatened to engulf him. The feeling of utter helplessness that he’d felt when he was trapped in the medbay watching Mal and Rowena fight ran like ice through his veins. They’d had each other in the end, but Selena had no one.

He couldn’t let the Sekoos hurt her.

Titan braced himself for discomfort and turned his implant on, it was the only way. Fire and crippling pain crawled up his arm. He focused on the wires connecting him to the torture device, blocking everything. Still, in the background he felt an echoing scream of anguish.

Selena had connected to him and was sharing his agony.

Shaking, he fused the wires, melting them so they fell away from the cuff.

The hull buckled rapidly, sending screams of the terrified gunnery crew into the confusion. Running boots echoed ahead of the stale air rushed inward as the ship was devoured.

Aching, Titan stood as the light flashed out, cut with the power. Out. All he needed was to get out. But he couldn’t draw on teleport coordinates. He couldn’t focus. He closed his eyes, trying to find the one thing that would get him out.

And then the ship was gone.

He was standing outside, in the sunshine, staring at the rapidly constricting hull of the Aconitum crumpling into a ball, eclipsing the sun. The air hummed with a fury and a power.

Staggering, he looked around at the fallen Sekoos lying in the dust where there ship had been. They were all alive, although at least one of the men wearing a gunner’s uniform had a broken leg. He watched them, waiting for a response, but the stayed down.

It was the first smart thing they’d done.

Taking a deep breath of air chocked with dust he turned.

Selena stood alone, hand outstretched, glaring at the Sekoo’s ship.

The rest of Enclave was unusually silent, accenting the sound of screeching, tearing metal.

Titan limped toward Selena. Something was wrong. There was something catastrophically off and he was too muzzy headed to recognize it. “Selena?”

She didn’t acknowledge him.

“Caryll? Captain?” He reached for her hand and the air sparked bright green and gold. “Selena!” He shouted to get her attention. His words reached his ears muffled by unmoving air.

Titan looked up.

Nothing was moving in Enclave.

The dust he’d kicked up trying to reach her hung in the air.

Crews who had run outside to find out what the noise was were in a ring around them, silent and unmoving. Soundless. Not breathing….

He took a deep breath and tasted the same stale air. The kind found on dead ships and in very dangerous shields.

Selena hadn’t just put a battle shield up, she’d locked one down. This was a containment field. Isolating everyone. Limiting their movement.

He was the only one able to move through the mess.

:Do something!: It was Rowena on a tight beam.

He looked up, saw her trapped on the edge of the field standing next to his aunt. Their faces were a rictus of fear.

The sound of tortured metal stopped and the sun grew bright again. A ball smaller than his fist – all that remained of the Sekoo’s warship – dropped to the ground like a bomb.

“Selena,” Titan tried again. “I’m here.”

“They hurt you.” Her voice was distant, her eyes unfocused. The pain had drawn her back into the war memories. Whatever she was seeing was a ghost of the past.

The closer he drew to her the thicker the air became. It was like walking through thick mud. Every breath was a struggle. “Selena, you have to let them go. You have to let everyone go or you’ll kill them.”

“They deserve to die.”

“Maybe.” He pushed as far as he could on trembling legs. It wasn’t close enough. “Maybe they deserve this. Maybe the whole fleet deserves this for what we did. But not you. You don’t deserve to take this pain.”

Her eyebrows drew together in frustration.

“You’re not a killer,” Titan said. “That’s the one thing you have that no else can claim. We’re all battle-scarred. We’re all broken. But you’re bloodless. You don’t ever need to fall asleep remember the face of people you killed. You can’t. I know you, Selena. I know your thoughts, your heart, you’ll never forgive yourself for this if you let them die.”

The air shivered between them as a sea breeze snuck through her defenses.

He took a step forward. “Please. Not for them. Not for me. Please let them go because I can’t lose you, and I will. This will destroy you, and then I’ll be alone.” The air was getting easier to breath.

Selena reached out along their shared link, gently assessing the damage. Then the containment field snapped back in place. “They hurt you.”

He fought his way through the shield. “Not that badly.

Titan wrapped his arms around her. The sleeve of her blouse slipped up above her elbow revealing four deep, silver scars that merged into three.

“I don’t want to have another war. I don’t want to hurt like this.” A tear shimmered at the corner of her he.

He smiled, then bent to kiss her neck. “Love, I’m fine.”

Her hand dropped as she shook. The terror and rage were seeping out of her mind like a poison. “They made you bleed.”

“I did that by pulling an IV out.”

“They’re monsters.” The Golden Apple, the Sekoo’s family ship filled with their remaining crew, trembled. An engine collapsed on itself.

Titan held Selena tighter, trying to make her turn away from the remaining Sekoo ships. “Yes, love, but so are we all. Made of flesh and machine, cut off from the stars of our homeworlds. We are not the children our ancestors bled for, but we’re here. Making the most of every day we have. Making good choices and bad, because we’re human, and we’re only human if we choose. Right now, I need you to choose to forgive. To let them go. Please, Selena? Come back to me.” He turned her around so she could see his face.

The blue of her eyes burned brighter than burning copper chloride. “They hurt you.”

“Not badly. I’m a guardian, a Sciarra, I can take a beating.” He felt rather than saw her rage. “No. That’s not how this ends. You can’t destroy all their ships.”

“I could.” Her voice was calmer now, not threatening simply stating a fact.

He believed that. “It’s not the right thing to do.”

Selena took a breath, hesitating, uncertain…

“Drop the shield. Let the guardians take it from here. There’s more here than me being a little bruised. This is an attack on Enclave. On the fleet. And, right now, you’re the biggest threat. No one can breathe.”

She closed her eyes. For a moment it was like holding a statue; he couldn’t even see her inhale. The shield fell as she opened her eyes.

Air rushed back into Enclave with a clap of thunder.

Noise returned, a babble of voices and chaos.

People pinged him for information. The guardian’s channel was in an uproar. Every Sciarra demanded to know where he was.

Selena stood still, cold and beautiful as moonlight in the darkest night.

“Titan!” Elea pushed through the crowd with Rowena on her heels. “What happened to you?”

He opened his mouth to lie when a scream interrupted him. Turning, he saw Lily Sekoo stumbling forward.

Lily staggered to her feet, her face a rictus of pain and wrath. “How dare you?”

The crowd widened, leaving room for what everyone likely saw as a personal matter.

:Carver,: Titan pinged his commander. :Now would be an excellent time to stop the next war.: It was all he could do to stay standing and keep Selena from going nova.

Perrin Carver and Hollis Silar teleported in front of Lily.

She screamed wordlessly.

“Technician Lily Sekoo, you are under arrest,” Carver said, voice low and calm.

“You have no rights! No right! I’m a pureblooded daughter of the Empire. I was born to better things than licking grounder feet and bowing to weak fools.” Lily glared past the guardians to Selena.

Selena started. “Weak?” Her voice cut through the morning air like a knife. “You think I’m weak?”

“You let me live,” Lily said.

For a moment Titan thought Selena might change her mind about that.

Then she nodded. “Yes. I did. You will live. You will remember every choice you made. You will remember every single thing you did. It will replay in your mind until you lose your sanity. And even then, it will flay your soul so when your broken, withered body finally falls silent, there will be nothing for your ancestors to find. I let you live. Welcome to hell.”

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BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 23 (Part 1)

TITAN

Start at Chapter 1

The engines were coughing. It was a stupid thing to think when he felt like he’d been hammered to the ground, and his implant wasn’t responding, but that was his first thought. The engines needed a tune up. Maybe he could convince the Lees to loan him Rowena for a week.

Titan opened his eyes, blinking not at darkness, but the half-lit gloom of a damaged ship that wasn’t the Sabiha.

A support beam leaned against the wall, cracked. The flooring had been ripped up to repair the wires. Ancestors, if his chief engineer saw this mess, the man would weep. The wires weren’t meant to be tangled. He shook his head, tried to turn on his implant, and screamed as his arm burned.

“Finally!” Lily Sekoo stepped in front of him wearing cast-off Baular battle gear with a Sekoo patch inexpertly stitched on. “I was beginning to think you’d never wake up.”

“Not to be cliché, but where am I?” Titan asked. His brain felt like it was swimming through oatmeal. “Why…” He looked down at his arm. Tubes with red and blue liquid ran from needles in his skin and a poorly constructed wrist cuff with more wires strapped him to an interrogation chair. “Ah.”

Lily paced in front of him. “This should have been finished hours ago, but your encryption is good. We’ll crack it in time. Don’t worry. But it is causing us an inconvenience.”

He rolled his eyes. Those exact lines had been in a very popular holovid when he was a teen. What was it called? Eden’s Fall? Something like that. The Baulars had been the villains in that one. Kidnapping a guardian and forcing him to reveal where the Eden was hidden. As if the guardians knew where the old space station was. He rolled his eyes. “Whatever it is you want, this isn’t the way to get it.”

“You may not feel it yet,” Lily said, “but your implant is draining. The nanites are being destroyed by the serum. You may not want to give up the code for the shield, but I don’t need it. As soon as your implant loses its charge, the shield will drop.”

Only if he were an incompetent idiot who kept the largest shield in fleet hooked to his personal energy source. He didn’t even have his implant on. It was the one major change he’d made after the crash; if his implant misfired, it turned off. Being unconnected from his crew and mechanical memory was annoying, but infinitely better than burning alive again.

He looked around at the broken ship and slumped in frustration.

Hopefully someone would notice he was missing before suppertime, because he could spend the rest of his life waiting for the Sekoo’s plan to come to fruition. Even Rowena couldn’t get this ship in the air again.

The sound of running boots on metal flooring made him twist to look over his shoulders.

Sadly, it wasn’t the guardians come to get him out of this ridiculous situation. Or his crew. He sighed and turned back, wondering if he was clear-headed enough to break everything and escape on his own. His focus was drifting, but in an hour or so when the knock-out drugs had cleared…

“Lily!” Another Sekoo stepped in, panting. “Captain Sciarra contacted The Golden Apple.”

Lily crossed her arms. “And someone answered? I gave orders!”

“She’s—” The man sucked in air like he’d run a marathon. “She’s talking about a Declaration of Courtship.”

“What?” Lily looked at Titan speculatively.

He could see her tallying up the advantages. Titan let her do the math. If Elea was offering anything, it was because she was already hunting for him. A little bit of patience was all he needed now.

The man coughed. “Said something about wanting you to transfer to the Sabiha so this one could spend time with you.”

“Oh, Titan…” Lily laughed. “That’s pathetic. Did you think I actually liked you? Did you think anyone forgave you after you betrayed the cause?”

“The cause?” Titan raised an eyebrow. “There’s a cause now?”

She lifted her chin haughtily, ignoring the belief in his voice. “You betrayed the Baulars.”

“I never even fought. How could I betray anyone?” Even without his implant the memories were too raw. Lingering guilt over deaths he couldn’t prevent.

And then he remembered the look on Selena’s face when she stood in the shadows and showed him the scars on her shoulder. If he was guilty, so was she, and he’d never hurt her like that.

“You were there when they banished the Baular heir. You could have saved Mal. You should have! You were his sworn second!”

“In school!” Titan argued. “And once I knew what would have happened when the Baulars won, I didn’t support their goals. Neither did Mal. He knew the war was stupid. That’s why he wasn’t executed.”

Lily sneered at him. “The Baulars promised us land. Power. Positions. They owe us. Win or lose.”

“Then go collect from the Baulars. They’re dead and you will be too if you try to start another war.”

“There’s no need for a war.” Lily’s eyes lit with the fervor of faith. “When the shield is down the Aconitum will rise, like a phoenix from the ash of despair, and destroy the enemies of the cause.”

“On these engines?” For the first time he felt genuinely worried. “Can I get off, please? Before you try to fly?”

Lily stamped her foot. “The engines are fine!”

“They really, really aren’t though. Can’t you hear them? Those aren’t engines you can fly on!”

“All they have to do is make us move.”

“And combat gravity!”

Selena was going to kill him. He wasn’t just going to die. He was going to die stupidly. “This is embarrassing.”

Lily chuckled. “You thought you were so special. A guardian. A Sciarra. The Baulars’ best fighter. How does it feel to be taken down by someone you wouldn’t give the time of day to?”

Titan looked up at the ceiling. “I was supposed to have breakfast somewhere outside the mess hall this morning. I am missing breakfast with a beautiful woman to listen to your bad ideas. Would you just—”

The ship tilted and Lily laughed with mad delight.

“Engines working, captain,” a voice reported from somewhere out of sight.

Titan shook his head vehemently. “No, they’re not. You hear that whine? Those are your stabilizers about to hit max capacity and overload. You have, what, seven of them running? Maybe eight? You’ll get a few meters off the ground at most.”

“We have three,” Lily said.

The Aconitum was a war ship one size smaller than the Sabiha. It ran with a bank of thirty stabilizing energy relays and common Sciarra wisdom was to shut down any ship that didn’t have ten fully functioning. Anything less was courting death.

Titan stared fatalistically at the wall. After all this. I almost had everything. He closed his eyes and pictured Selena standing in front of him. Hopefully she was with the Jhandarmi today.

The Enclave shield wasn’t going to go down, the Aconitum was. Between the shield, the Enclave wall, and the active weapons on other vessels, they’d never get far. Selena didn’t need to see his body pulled from the wreckage.

“We’ve reached an altitude of ten meters,” a man reported.

“Ten more,” Lily said. “We need to clear the wall.”

Titan shook his head.

“The shield’s not down!”

Lily turned to him. “Drop it, Sciarra. I know you’re barely able to hold it.”

“Put the ship down,” Titan said.

Lily took a deep breath and turned. “Activate energy cannons.”

“But—” someone smarter than her started to protest.

“Do it!” The order cracked against the hull.

“The energy will splash back on you,” Titan said. “On us. Your stabilizers won’t be able to absorb the overload.”

Lily crossed her arms. “They will. This once, they will.”

“Cannons two minutes to full charge.”

Two minutes? How had these yaldson castoffs survived the war? Two minutes was an eternity.

Something metal-sounding crunched, echoing in the dark ship.

Cold terror ran up his spine. “What was that?” It sounded like a hull decompressing. It was a sound that gave him nightmares. He’d been trained since he could walk to run from that sound.

“It’s nothing,” Lily said.

There was another spine-chilling crunch.

Titan’s eye twitched.

“It’s not decompression,” Lily said. She sounded brave but the pulse at the base of her throat was jumping. “We’re not in orbit. A ship can’t decompress on ground.”

Somewhere in the depths of the ship, someone screamed.

Titan focused on the needles in his skin. Teleporting with drugs in the system was always rough. Thankfully, the Sekoos hadn’t had the foresight to use grounder materials. The needles slid out, scraping against his arm, and leaving him to bleed freely.

“Lily!” Two more Sekoo crew came running in. “The engine room is collapsing.”

“Collapsing? How?”

“It’s… it’s crinkling in. Being squeezed.”

She shook her head. “That’s impossible.”

Titan squirmed a little. He’d need to turn on his implant to get the wrist cuff off and it was going to hurt.

Lily kicked him. “Why are you shaking your head?”

“The Sciarras… we’ve done that before. During the first war we had a few people who could destroy a ship by crushing it. We took out a few of the Carylls that way. My captain? She could do it.” Elea’s call to the Golden Apple hadn’t been a signal he was safe, it was a warning to get out.

“Bring on the stabilizers,” Lily ordered. “Whoever is doing this has to have a close focus. We’ll move out of their range to safety.”

The ship tilted under them as the engines whined in protest. There was another sickening crunch of metal and the ship lifted.

Tossing her hair, Lily smiled. “We’re out.”

“Captain?” The man at the com turned, face ashen. “Our… our engines are gone.”

“Then how are be airborne?” Lily asked.

He shook his head. “Someone’s… holding us up? Maybe?”

“Impossible!”

Not for an elite. Not for someone like Carver or Marshall. The only thing holding them back was the political fallout of an attack. Selena. He licked his lips, remembering her crumpling a heavy metal door as it were cobwebs.

“We’re getting a transmission!” The comtech yelled.

“From who?” Lily walked over to the console. “I don’t know that code.”

The man shook his head. “There’s high level encryption behind it. The message says, ‘Teleport out now’ with a countdown.” His voice was filled with panic. “Ma’am, I can’t teleport. I’m not augmented. What… what are we going to do?”

“It’s a bluff,” Lily said. “We ignore it.”

Another section of the hull fractured and buckled under the weight of someone’s rage.

“It’s not a bluff,” Titan said. The smell of fear and desperation filled the bridge. “There are officers who could destroy this ship.”

“They won’t,” Lily said. “We’re allies of the Balaurs. Of the Sciarras! Of the Warmonger crews. No one would dare go to war with us again.” Her face turned dark with rage. “I have other allies. Other weapons. I’ll take them all out.” She whipped around. “Put that out,” she ordered the comtech. “Tell the Allied crews to back away or I’ll fire on their home ships. I’ll kill their children if I have to.”

“No!” Titan strained against his shackles. “Belay order!”

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BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 20 (Part 2)

TITAN

Start at Chapter 1

Elea Sciarra was, at least in Titan’s opinion, the best captain the crew ever had. She was also his nearest surviving blood relative.

Her perfection was tempered by humanity and a forgiving heart.

In the old day, she would never have been promoted past junior gunner.

But these weren’t the old days, and now Titan stood across from her gaping, black desk and watched her warily. Black uniform against black skin and against the oh-so-typical black walls of a Sciarra captain’s office. The whites of her eyes stood out like twin suns.

She moved, and the lights changed, projecting the image of a baby blue nebula against the wall. The black desk lit up with files, images, and status icons. “Well. Titan. How are you?”

“I’m well, thank you, captain.”

The captain leaned back in her chair. “I understand there are rumors running around the fleet that someone left a hole in the middle of the expensive end of Tarrin. I’d normally ignore these rumors, except someone swears it was the Caryll’s Persephone that launched the attack and, curiously enough, you’ve been chasing Captain Caryll for the past few days and weren’t in your quarters last night. During lock down. When you were on medical leave.” Her tone cooled noticeably. “Which begs a very interesting question: where were you last night? And, don’t lie.”

“I was in Tarrin last night. With Captain Caryll. But there isn’t a hole in Tarrin.”

“That’s the engine you want to run on?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll share a recording of the event from my implant with time stamps and everything, if that’s what you need.” It’d be an unusual request, invasive by most standards, captains weren’t supposed to have a second in command they couldn’t trust. But these were unusual times.

She narrowed her eyes. “Am I going to like what I see?”

“No, ma’am. I was in combat when I should have been resting.”

“Ancestors above protect this stupid boy!” His aunt turned her face to the ceiling and shook her head. “What would your mother say if she were alive, ancestors keep her.”

“In my defense, ma’am, I did not plan to be in combat and if I hadn’t been there civilians would have died. I was doing my job, not because I went looking for trouble, but because it found me.”

She didn’t look convinced.

Well, all in all it had been a good life. Short, but memorable. Hopefully Selena wouldn’t start a war if his aunt killed him in a fit of over-protective rage.

Elea rocked her chair back and forth with a meditative creak like a clock counting down to doomsday. “Captain Caryll?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“As outrageous as that sounds, I can only assume it’s the truth. It doesn’t have the logic of lie.”

He kept his mouth shut.

“Was it fleet business?”

“In a manner of speaking, captain.”

The creaking stopped.

“Explain.”

He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, prayed to his departed ancestors, and threw himself at his aunt’s mercy. “After meeting with the Jhandarmi director this evening I tried to find Captain Caryll to ensure she’d received proper medical treatment after this afternoon’s events. Carver assured me she was being treated by Captain Marshall, but Rowena said Marshall was out of coms range. The Jhandarmi had let slip the address of the operation they were going to run tonight,” only a small lie, “and found Captain Caryll’s implant signature in the area and concluded she was probably observing the operation. I felt that I was healthy enough to check on her wellbeing and return to Enclave without risking further injury.”

“It looks like you failed,” his aunt said dryly.

“The Jhandarmi considered the operation to be low-risk.”

“They weren’t trying to go in the field after being hit by an EMP blast and having their abdomens sliced open.”

“My implant was recharged to a safe level.” If thirty percent counted as safe.

The captain’s chair began creaking again. “What did you find?”

Selena was going to kill him if this went nova. No, scratch that, everyone was going to kill him if he couldn’t convince his captain the plan was sounds. “Captain Caryll was near a safe house established in the first days after landing. It has a heavy shield, one of the Caryll specials, and while it wasn’t on my personal data base, I don’t believe it’s illegal in any way. She has an established grounder identity that the Jhandarmi were using to infiltrate the auction of the stolen data and apprehend the thief.”

“Why did she have a grounder identity?”

Titan shook his head. “I’m unclear on how it came to be, but it was part of the Landing protocol and signed off on by the Captain’s Council.”

“Was the data recovered?”

“No, ma’am.”

“The thief?”

“Found dead after the incident.”

Elea leaned on her desk. “Caryll is trouble.”

“People have said that about me too,” Titan said. “They’ve probably said it about you.”

His captain smirked. “Eventually, but by then it was far too late.” She sighed and her eyes glowed a silvery sage green. After a moment of stillness she shook her head. “Is there any way I can persuade you that further contact with Captain Caryll and the Jhandarmi is too disruptive to the health of the crew?”

“Only if you can prove that this crew doesn’t need a little disruption. We’re on a collision course with extinction, captain. If something doesn’t change in the next decade, we’re dead. Our way of life, our culture, our crew cannot live ground-bound and entombed alive in this ship. Someone has to change the course we’re on. Why not me?”

“Injury, inexperience, head trauma” the captain said, ticking the items off on her fingers, “I can think of a dozen reasons I ought to lock you in the brig for your own safety.”

Titan smiled. She was his favorite relative for a reason. “But you won’t.”

“But I won’t,” she agreed. “What do you need from me?”

“Immediately? Permission to go spend time with Lily Sekoo off the Golden Apple.”

His captain watched him in damning silence. “Titan, please tell me you are not so brutally stupid that you think you can string a fleet captain along with promises of romance while keeping a low-class scavenger on the side.”

“No! The Sekoos told Rowena they have access to the medication Aronia Lee needs. Selena is aware of this and supports this action.”

“You’re talking about Captain Caryll as if she were your spouse.”

“She will be.”

The declaration hung between them.

Elea tapped a slow tattoo on the table as she thought. Finally she asked, “Is Captain Caryll aware of your intentions?”

“Yes.”

“Is it even legal?”

“With a declaration of courtship, yes. Unprecedented, a bit extraordinary, but so is everything in life.”

His captain shook her head in disbelief. “I never thought I’d see the Sciarras allied with the Carylls. But I never thought I’d make captain either.” She waved her hand. “Fine. Yes. I’ll draft a declaration for you. And you-“ she paused to look him over and shake her head “-shower before going to meet the Sekoos, eh? You’re filthy.”

“I’ve looked worse.”

“Yes, you have. Dismissed.”

Titan saluted.

“Come home alive, Titan,” he aunt said.

“I will.”

 

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BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 20 (Part 1)

TITAN

Start at Chapter 1

At four in the morning Titan gave up and lay down on the small couch in the back room where he’d been quarantined. The front rooms of Selena’s house had been turned into a Jhadarmi control center to handle the mess outside.

So, that was battle on grounder turf. Not nearly as neat and tidy as war viewed from a fighter’s cockpit. Things had… splashed. Shattered. He ran a hand down his leg over the healing burns of a broken oil lamp.

The nanite gel patch Selena had given him was speeding things up nicely. He’d have to figure out where she’d found one. It’d be a good segue to the conversation they were about to have about how she’d just bombed the planet from orbit.

Ancestors above, that had not been expected.

The Carylls were supposed to be out of the game. Defanged and harmless. The Persephone was listed as a floating wreck, no engines or weapons left, no repair possible. Selena wasn’t supposed to be able to produce a targeted strike like that. He wasn’t sure he could coax the Sabiha into half that precision, and she was the best ship in the Sciarra armada.

That was another thing to put on the to-do list. He sighed, and stared at a painting blue flower alien to him. The pearlescent white frame hide the scorch marks on the canvas well, but not well enough.

“Do you like it?” Selena’s voice startled him.

Titan stood up. “The flower? Yes, although I don’t know the name of it.”

“The blue dianthus is native to the Caryll home world. It’s been extinct since before the settlement of the Malik system. One of my ancestors painted the flowers in her garden before our family was called into the Emperor’s service. I had them removed from the Persephone before her final battle.”

She walked over to another painting and tapped the glass flame. “See this? The painting was burnt over three hundred years ago during a candlelit dinner between lovers.”

“How did that relationship end?”

“Poorly.” She sounded angrier than she looked.

Titan moved toward her, tugging gently with telekyen until she stepped into his embrace. “This is an impressive defensive position you built yourself.” Her skin was chill and there was a lingering scents of floral soap. At least she’d taken the time to wash away the blood of the day.

“Oh?” She lifted her chin so she could maintain eye contact. “Do you like my shield?”

“I do. Almost as much as I like the woman it’s guarding.”

Selena’s hands slid around his neck, caressing him, holding him…  Her head fell to his chest.

Titan’s hands wandered from her waist, massaging the muscles in her back. It was a stolen moment that wouldn’t last, but all happiness was built in stolen moments.

She groaned with pleasure, lifting her head.

He leaned down and trailed hungry kisses down her neck.

Her eyes fluttered open. “You’re making me forget why I came in here.” She touched his chest, starting to push him away, and then her fingers curled, pulling him closer. “I came to check on you.”

“That wasn’t a bad idea. It saves me from having to come fine you.” His found her lips, brushed across them in silent question.

Selena’s tongue ran across his mouth, begging for entry, and he let her in.

Their shields intertwined, melting together until every emotion circled back. He could feel her pleasure as he lifted her up, the hunger wasn’t in her kiss alone, but in her thoughts and pressure of her fingertips digging into his shoulders and pushing for more.

He stepped back until he fell onto the couch with Selena on top, her long, blonde hair falling around them. Her whole body grew warm. It was like holding the warmth of a flame, the tension in his muscles eased, and he was lost in her touch. Lost in the pleasure of finally holding her, kissing her. He’d risk death to stay beside her. Kill to keep her happy.

It took all his strength to open his eyes and focus on reality. The stunning, amazing, reality of Selena Caryll in his arms. “You’re beautiful.”

The look in her deep blue eyes was soft, glazed with pleasure as she stole another kiss he willingly gave.

If he could control time they’d stay here forever. Forget about the smoking ruins next door, and the mob of Jhandarmi and police on the other side the wall. All he wanted was to hold this moment forever.

Selena pulled away leaving him cold.

Reluctantly, he let his eyes drift open. The look of despair on her face stabbed at his heart. Words failed him. His blood pounded in his ears as he realized she was stepping away. “Selena?”

She held up a hand covered in blood.

Titan stared at it, light headed. “I…”

“You’re bleeding!”

Relief that she was angry over his healthy, not over his kiss, made him slump back in the cushions. “It’s bleeding less than it was. I’m fine.” He reached for her again.

Selena’s glare was fierce, and not nearly as playful as he wanted.

“I will live through this.”

“Sick leave, Sciarra, ever heard of it?” She spun around and marched off down a dark hall.

:Romance, Caryll, ever heard of it? If I have to chase you down, I might rip my stitches again.:

She teleported back to the room holding a square patch of a swollen, blue cloth. “You think I wouldn’t have noticed your stitches had ripped again? What was your plan here?”

“I’m not sure I had plans. Fantasies, yes, but not plans.”

The look she gave him was only a few degrees warmer than zero Kelvin. “You must not have gotten very far in your fantasies if you kept your shirt on.” A first-aid kit floated out of the cupboard. “Or were you planning on blindfolding me?”

“Tempting idea.” Titan pulled her back between his legs as she unwrapped the bandage. “But I doubt you want any more surprises after the day we’ve had.”

“Yet here you are,” she said as she lifted his shirt off, “surprising me in the worst ways.” Tender fingers ran along his side. “Why didn’t you say anything? I could have had a medic in here taking care of you.”

He glanced at his scars long enough for Selena to notice them.

“Oh.” She ran her hand along the grooves in his arm, then kissed him.

Titan drank her in, moonlight and power, the stars and the sky here with him.

“Who knew you had a poetic side?” she said with a smile. “I’ll the nanite patch on, then find you another shirt. Tyrling has almost finished out there and he’ll want to debrief you soon.” She peeled a backing off the blue patch and stuck a cool gel on his side. “Nanite patch,” she said by way of explanation. “It’ll boost your all-purpose nanites for twelve hours and help you recover faster.” Her smile was sorrowful.

“What’s wrong?”

“I have to let you go, don’t I?”

“Possibly, for a little bit. Elea will expect me to tell her face to face that I’m transferring to your crew.” Saying the words out loud felt strange, but there was pleasure in them. “And I ought to pack my gear. I won’t be gone long, promise.” He lifted her hand and kissed the palm.

She twined her fingers with his. “What am I going to do with you?”

Through their shared link he suggested multiple ideas.

Her cheeks blushed a bright pink as she smiled. “I think the zero-g one is probably out of the question in the near future. And at least two of those would require me to have my old Academy uniform. Is this a kink I should know about.”

“It’s an old fantasy,” Titan said, wrapping his arms around her. He let his gaze drop, running along her body like a caress. “Gi pants and a silver shirt dropping off your shoulder? Barefoot and soft-eyed on my lap?”

There was a twinkle and a hunger in her eyes.

“I think you underestimate how attractive you have always been. Said with all due respect, Captain.”

Selena laughed before kissing him again.

“Caryll!” Tryling’s bellow echoed through the room as a door slammed open behind them.

:Not a part of my fantasy,: Titan grumbled.

:Reality rarely us.: Selena stood up and teleported in a shirt that she tossed at him. “Sir? I’m over here.”

Tyrling walked around the couch and nodded to him. “You look more alive than you did.”

“Thank you,” Titan said. “I hope you’ll forgive the lack of proper reception.”

“Kaftan’s dead,” Tyrling said without preamble. “Shot in the head at point-blank range and dropped behind the hypertram station. A couple of patrollers found him ten minutes ago already going cold. The datcube was missing.”

Selena crossed her arms. “That’s it the?. We don’t have any other leads?”

“I might have another one,” Titan said. “The Sekoos reached out to Rowena and said they had some of the medicine Aronia needs.”

The look Selena gave him could have peeled paint off a hull.

“It was something I wanted to talk about in private, but then we were getting shot at.” He shrugged apologetically. His side ached in protest.

“Convenient,” Tyrling muttered.

“Very,” Selena agreed. “How did they get the medicine?”

Titan tipped his head in acknowledgment. “How do they get anything? They’re a C-class crew, non-combatants, but they adapted to Landing quick enough. They sell scrap metal for the most part, and I’m sure some of their contacts would have black market contacts.” He grimaced as he realized how bad that sounded. “Maybe just back channel. Not illegal, but unofficial?” He reached out to Selena, :What’s the grounder word for this?:

:Black market is probably accurate.: She crossed her arms. “What do the Sekoos want from Lee in return?”

“Me,” Titan said.

Selena’s eyes went wide and the memory of a burning precision strike hit his shield with full force. :No.:

“Lily wants an hour of my time,” he out loud for the director’s benefit. “Not for anything physical, she wants to talk,” Titan said. He reached for Selena. :I love you. It won’t be anything but a talk.:

“Do you object to going?” Tyrling asked.

“Not unless Selena objects.” What he wouldn’t give to have a few hours truly alone with her. To talk. To hold her. Giving time to Lily Sekoo seemed like a crime, but he was a fleet officer and someone needed his help.

Selena smiled softly. :We’ll have time together.:

:Never enough.:

“I don’t mind Sciarra going,” she said in a formal tone. “It’s business. Part of the job is sometimes spending time with people we wouldn’t pick to socialize with in our free time.”

“Too true,” Tyrling said but his eyes were narrowed in thought.

Titan gave Selena’s arm a mental tug so she took a step closer and he could touch her hand. He needed her touch right now, the memory of moon and star light, of safety and serenity.

:Poet.: Her gentle laugh was a balm.

Tyrling cleared his throat. “Did I miss something here? I thought you didn’t know him well,” he said pointing from Selena to Titan.

“We’re, um…” Selena frowned and Titan saw the tumble of words her implant was sorting through. “I don’t know what the grounder equivalent. Not dating, because that’s how you get to know someone, but not officially a spousal couple? Engaged sounds a bit too militant.”

“We’re courting,” Titan said. “It’ll be official once my captain gives her seal of approval and permits me to move to another crew. Which will probably be later today unless someone starts another war.” He squeezed Selena’s hand.

Tyrling blinked. “That’s… fine? Does this mean I’m losing you, Caryll?”

“Titan will be my second. We’ll negotiate a new contract, read him in, and you’ll get my full crew backing Jhandarmi operations. It’ll open a avenues of inquiry for us. We’ve talked about investing more in my business person persona. It’ll be easier to sell that with Titan beside me.”

“Fine. We’re going to be renegotiating with Enclave anyway. Might as well rearrange everything in my life. Maybe I can go home and move my furniture around tonight. That way I can know everything’s changed.”

The word MOVE triggered a cascade of memories from the previous night. Titan raised a finger for attention. “There’s something I forgot.”

Selena and Tyrling both turned to him.

“Last night Kaftan said the suppliers ordered the hit to clear a Star Guard out of the way. If he stole the medicine to sell, why would he say suppliers?”

Tyrling rolled his neck, glared at the ceiling, and cursed. “I knew we were missing something! That’s why Kaftan was on the tram. He wasn’t coming to town, he was working on the tram. Switching goods in the boxes.”

“Then, what, someone took what he smuggled in out of the warehouse?” Selena asked.

The director nodded. “It’s a classic move. Change out the already cleared cargo, leave money or goods, take the boxes from the warehouse after they’re unloaded.”

“Why leave the disaster then?” Selena asked. “If Kaftan could get in and out without leaving a trace why would he need to blow the warehouse doors in.”

“Amateurs,” Titan said thinking back on his conversation with Rowena. “Kaftan knew what he was doing, but his suppliers didn’t. They were amateurs, inexperienced, so they didn’t know how to cover their tracks. They probably thought the threat of an assassination attempt would be enough to keep the guardians cowed.”

Selena shook her head in disagreement. “No one would think that. No one in fleet.”

“It makes sense,” Tyrling said. “Basic crime theory says the first crimes a person commits are the most personal, and the most likely to reveal how they work. Look at what they left: explosive markings, a mess, and signs of fear, not of the Jhandarmi but of fleet. Which makes me wonder what they were giving Kaftan.”

That seemed obvious. “Tech,” Titan said. “The weapons last night, the disruptor that silenced communications, I bet they were all old fleet tech. Obsolete for the most part, but every crew has a junk ship piled up with bits and pieces they hope they can one day re-purpose. You don’t destroy anything because there’s no way to replace it once it’s gone. We don’t have the resources to be wasteful.”

“And the antiques market is the biggest source of income for the crews,” Selena said. “Selling off old scrap computers can be profitable. Crack the hull! A crew wouldn’t even need to sell weapons. Some of those could have been sitting in grounder vaults since before isolation. All they needed for half of them was an upgraded power source.”

Titan stood up. “I know how we can find out. Want to bet me dinner I can sweet talk Lily Sekoo into letting the name of her contact drop?” He winked at Selena.

She rolled her eyes. “Ridiculous man. Fine, yes, go be charming. But bet my lunch. I don’t want you gone that long.” She reached up and brushed debris from his shoulder. “Stay off the training mats, okay? You’re supposed to be healing.”

Titan leaned down and gently kissed her. “I’ll be back in time for lunch. Promise.” He smiled to Tyrling as he headed for the door.

“What, no kiss for me?” the director demanded.

With a  grin, Titan leaned over and kissed Tyrling’s cheek. “Love you too. Promise. Just not as much as her.” He teleported to Enclave, catching the full strength of his aunt’s wrath as he passed through the Enclave shield. The orders were clear: report to the captain. Immediately.

It was time to let Captain Sciarra know where he’d been all night, and with who.

 

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BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 18 (Part 2)

TITAN

Start at Chapter 1

“Taking your victims home is messy,” Titan said. “Unprofessional. Your DNA will be all over her.”

“Don’t worry,” Kaftan said. “I’m good at making these things look like accidents.” He smoothed his hand over his pants. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to go circulate. Can’t get a good auction if you don’t have buyers frothing at the mouth.”

“Kaftan?” Titan said, stalling.

The man turned. “What? What I says goes. Done is done.”

“This is a side matter, something personal.”

Kaftan slowed and pivoted back to him. “I’m listening.”

“During this operation, my employer hired some local talent. Sent orders outside our usual chain of command. Me and my fellows had a bet about who’s name was to be rubbed out. Care to give me a hint? I can make it worth your trouble.”

“Shame I’m a thief, not a liar, I’d love to take your money. But I don’t know. The supplier said it would be easier for them if a certain officer of the law was scrubbed out. Would have put the city on high alert if any more of them dropped. It was bad for business. If the supplier wants to do something now, that’s their business.” Kaftan shrugged as he walked off.

Titan stared after him in horror. Employers and suppliers did not add up to a small operation. He turned just in time to see Arwel sweep through a group of giggling women who were enjoying an anecdote from a dark-haired model.

“Sir! I apologize, I didn’t catch your name when you came in.”

“Ty is what my friends call me.” He watched as Selena moved out of view following one of the illuminated paths into the artificial jungle. “Was there something you needed?”

“Need? No. I want to introduce you to someone if you feel inclined to socialize.”

More like he wanted to steer his unvetted visitors away from the black market traders, but at this point any information would help. He hadn’t missed a mission briefing since he was fourteen, now it seemed like he’d have to reset the clock.

His host gestured for him to follow along a flagstone path. “Are you enjoying the garden?”

“It’s… interesting,” Titan said.

“Different than the formal gardens in Descent I imagine. I’ve been to Kytan, of course, it’s practical a requirement if you love horticulture, but it was the wind forests in Essan that really captured my imagination. The little rock pools and hidden forests tucked away in the rills and valleys were quite breathtaking.”

Titan nodded as he made a note to look up the places Arwel was naming.

“That couldn’t be done here, naturally,” the man continued on as the path snaked across a decorative creek and behind the crashing sound of the waterfall, “but I think my designer did a good job of catching the creative spirit of the original. There are hidden vistas around

every corner. And hidden beauty.” He stopped and smiled.

It took Titan a moment to realize that Selena was standing in the shadows of the artificial rocks watching the party. Their approach hadn’t triggered a response.

His approach hadn’t trigged a response. He’d expected their shields to synch again, but they weren’t. She’d reconfigured hers in the brief time they’d been apart.

Arwel winked at him and mouthed, “Good luck,” before slipping away down the path.

For a moment Titan let the moment be. Selena Caryll, alone in the moonlight and shadows, waiting for a chance to step into the spotlight. She was beautiful.

And tired.

There was the first dark shadow of fatigue under her eyes, a hint of strain around her eyes, a pinch to her lips that spoke of anger, weariness, and control. He wanted to take away her worry, rush her away from her, or fight the battle, or do whatever needed to be done to wash the darkness from her eyes.

Stepping loudly he walked up behind her.

Selena pivoted, a wide-eyed expression of startlement and fear on her face. For a drawn out moment she stared at him uncomprehending? “Titan?”

“Yes?”

She shook her head in disbelief, shields and data tight as the night she’d punched him. “You’re not supposed to be here! You need to leave. Now.”

“I will, in a moment.” If she gave him no other choice. “But I behaved badly earlier and I wanted to apologize.”

He expected her to draw up her shoulders and nod knowingly the way most people did when he acknowledged he treated them poorly. Selena only looked at him in confusion.

“This afternoon,” he said, slowly trying to feel his way across the sudden gap between them, “I left. With Lily Sekoo. Because she was injured, and I didn’t check on you. As your partner I should have followed up.”

“You were concussed, bleeding, and your implant was exhausted. You didn’t to do anything but get to the Sabiha’s medical bay without collapsing. Which it seems you did. Well done. Go home.”

“I came to make sure you were okay.”

Selena shrugged. “I received the medical treatment I needed. Does that satisfy you?”

“Not really,” he admitted. Again, he felt there was a key piece to the puzzle that was missing. None of her reactions made any sense. Immediate forgiveness was probably unlikely, but being locked out hurt.

She raised her eyebrows. “What?”

“I thought we’d developed a bit more of a dialog and I’d get more information than an ensign on their first day on the bridge.”

Glancing back through the trees at the part Selena sighed impatiently. “Would you believe me if I said it wasn’t personal?”

“If it didn’t feel personal, yes.”

She glared at him, blue eyes cold as the black between stars. “I did what you suggested and archived my war memories so I could focus on the task at hand.”

Titan expanded his shield so it brushed against Selena’s. It was like trying to catch mist in his hand. “Did I hurt you so much that you had to erase me too?”

“It was a calculated decision.” Her voice was chilly and distant. “Painful. Torturous. I can’t go through that again. I can’t take another loss like I did with the Persephone and my crew.”

“And, you think I’d leave you?”

“Wouldn’t you?” Her forehead crinkled as she let her fear bubble to the surface. “When this is over and you have no reason to keep company with me? When your crew, and captain, and allies start questioning why you spend time with that worthless Selena Caryll, what did you plan on doing?”

“I planned on asking permission to court you.”

She closed her eyes. “Oh, Titan.”

“Did you not want that?” He sorted through every moment they’d spent together trying to find the cues he’d missed.

“As a woman, yes, I’d be delighted to be courted by you. As a senior officer? No, I can’t let you for the same reasons your captain will reject the suggestion: I have nothing to offer.”

Titan took a step closer. “What do you mean?”

“There is no advantage to your crew if you court me. I can’t offer ships, officers, training berths, or even a social boost. I’m worthless.”

Force teleporting a captain somewhere so he could yell at her gave him an estimated survival rate of zero-point-nine percent, his implant informed him. Besides, he didn’t have a suitable venue picked out. Clearly an oversight.

Selena crossed her arms, signaling an end of the discussion.

“What about your intelligence?” Titan asked.

She shrugged. “What about it?”

“Isn’t that something you can offer? Your years of experience? Your contacts with the locals, which are obviously much more developed than you led anyone to believe. My captain doesn’t need ships, she needs to build a future. I need a future.”

“I doubt your crew would accept that argument.”

“Then I find another crew.”

The nearby waterfall seemed to grow louder as the silence stretched between them.

Finally Selena said, “You don’t mean that.”

“I do.” He tried to force a smile. “It was bound to happen anyway, wasn’t it? If you wanted to change crews you would have done it by now. That means you want to keep the Caryll name and any spouse will have to join your crew.”

“I don’t want to ask for that kind of sacrifice.”

“You don’t need to.” He risked taking another step closer.

Her crossed arms became a closed-shoulder self-hug. She shook her head. “You think you know how this ends. You think you’ll spend more time with me, learn my secrets, and still love me. You won’t. Whatever fantasy you’ve built in your head, I’m not that woman.”

“I don’t have any fantasies, not about who you are at least,” Titan said. “I’ve seen you work, and fight, and lead. I’m not promising you every day will be perfect, but the bad days together will be worth fighting for. I know that. Because when I’m around you I’m happy. I have hope.”

“Don’t do that,” she said, her voice breaking. “Don’t make me your source of happiness. I can’t give you that.”

Titan stepped close enough to reach her if he dared. “I’m not asking you for anything but a chance to be beside you every day. The good days and the bad. I promise you, I’ll always be there.”

She shook her head again. “No. No you won’t. There’s things I’ve done-“

“We’ve all done things!” He inhaled sharply to keep from yelling. “We’ve all done things,” he said again, quieter this time. “We aren’t children. We’re survivors of a war and there isn’t anyone here who can’t tell you who they killed, or who they wanted dead, or who killed someone they loved. That happened. There’s nothing you did that would make me think less of you.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Then tell me,” Titan challenged. “Tell me what you did that you think I’ll never forgive. If you’re right, I’ll leave. If you’re wrong…” He spread his hands in surrender. “We’re all wrong sometimes.”

Selena turned away, shields tightening around her.

“If you’re going to banish me from your life, shouldn’t it be like you’re imagining? Let me storm out.”

“Can’t you just accept that you’d hate me?”

He took a deep breath and resisted the urge to start the next civil war at some grounder’s garden party. Luckily, his ancestors had blessed him with a wealth of stubborn women in his life so he knew the right answer here. Very calmly he said, “You do not get to dictate my feelings or my reactions. You can give me facts, but that’s all you can do. I get to choose whether I am angry or not. I’m not an infant who needs protection. Let me take my hits like an adult.”

An angry silence shimmered in the air between them.

Titan smiled. “That’s what I thought.”

Selena frowned over her shoulder at him, half question, half condemnation.

“You’re not worried about what I think at all. It’s not my forgiveness you’re doubting.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“If your goal was driving me away, and you had a weapon to use, you’re smart enough that you would have used it by now.”

She turned slowly, unfolding with a quiet fury until she looked every inch a fleet captain. “Did it ever occur to you that I was trying to spare you?”

“I don’t need to be spared.”

Silver-blue lightning flickered in her eyes. “I shot you down. That night Balaur led the strafing run?  It wasn’t Hollis Silar with Perrin and Hermione, he didn’t have the fighters. I did. I took the shot that should have killed you.”

The memory was still raw, the smoke in the cockpit burning his lungs, the alarms and sound, the rushing sensation has true gravity grabbed him and pulled him down. His throat tightened around a remembered scream.

“I shot you down, and you weren’t there when Balaur needed you. You missed the war. You let people die.”

He shook his head, forcing his thoughts to the present. “No. That’s me. That’s survivor’s guilt. You may have heard the echoes in my mind, and I’m sorry for that, but that’s not me. I know if I’d been there for Mal I would have either died in war or been executed after. The Sciarra crew wouldn’t have survived. My Aunt Elea never would have taken control of the crew. Mars. Rowena. All of them would have died if I hadn’t been there after the war. I was the only Warmonger the Star Guard would take. Carver trusts my loyalty and common sense, and me being free of the war is the only bridge we had to rebuild on.”

“That doesn’t make it forgivable.”

“Maybe it makes it inevitable,” Titan said. “Maybe our ancestors knew and changed your shot.”

She curled back in on herself. “Or maybe I’m a worthless shot. If you’d died we may not have ever gone to war.”

Stepping forward he held out his hand, silently willing her to reach for him. “Our other was starvation. Maybe not for your crew, but most the Warmongers were low on rations. We’d been limiting births, cutting back training, we were dying. Landing at least gives us a chance to live, even if it means changing how we do things. I’m not ever going to be angry that you shot me down. It was the right choice.” He gave her shield a gentle nudge as tears filled her eyes. “Selena, I’m here.”

With a tiny grumble of forfeit she stepped forward into his waiting arms.

Titan wrapped his arms around her, lowering his shields so there was a place for her and her wet cheek rested on his chest.

“If you say I’m beautiful when I’m angry or something stupid I’m going to drop-kick you into vacuum,” she muttered as she hugged him back.

“Not a word,” he promised, though she was always beautiful. He traced the painting on her arm, the stars and comets with silver tails that were three thick, wide grooves in her arm. They started just above her elbow at almost the same place his scars ended.

Selena shivered and pulled herself together as her shield melded with his. Gently, she pushed him away. “I…”  There was a tsunami of emotions flooding his senses. She wanted to apologize, wanted to yell, wanted to run away from all of this, but the core of Selena had always been duty. Loving a captain was like that, it meant loving not only them but their work.

He leaned forward and kissed her forehead. “I know, the job comes first.”

“I need to go keep an eye on Kaftan.”

“He knows you were there today,” Titan said. “He saw you.”

She tossed her wet hair. “I was counting on it.” The words dripped fleet arrogance. With a smile she ran a hand down his shirt. “You really should go, though. You’re exhausted and you’re injured.”

“I’d rather stay nearby even if I’m not involved in the op. Kaftan said something that makes me think we don’t have a handle on this yet, and I don’t want you walking into this alone.” He shot her the conversation as he felt her gathering her objections. “I promise to stay out of the way and only jump to the rescue if you actually need.”

“Hmm, Captain Sciarra trained you how to be a second in command very well.”

He chuckled. “Don’t I get credit for doing anything on my own?”

“Mmmm…” She wrinkled her nose. “No. Not when you’re wounded. Maybe when you can fight back…”

The image of hitting the wrestling mats with Selena made his heartrate jump.

Soft fingers caressed his jaw. “It’s been a while since I had a training partner.”

“I’ll tell Silar he needs to find someone else’s ribs to break.” He kissed her fingertips before she pulled away.

Her smile was pure bliss.

“Couldn’t we leave Kaftan for the night? There are so many better things I can think to do.”

“Tempting, but if the Lees need the medicine, we need information now not later. If we catch Kaftan selling the information we can probably get him to hand over the details of the heist.”

Titan closed his eyes and sighed. When he’d pictured declaring his undying love to someone he hadn’t factored in the possibility she’d be in the middle of a mission. Although, considering the kind of women he was attracted to, that was a dramatic oversight. He made a mental note to warn his future children that chasing aggressively intelligent lovers would mean chasing them into the field sometimes.

Selena leaned in. “I can hear your brain overheating.”

“I’m making notes.”

“For children we don’t have yet.”

“It’s still something I need to remember.” She’d said YET. He was giddy with hope. “I should let Ro know I’m staying here for a bit before she raises a fuss.”

Nodding, Selena stepped away. “And I need to find Kaftan and convince him I’m enamored with his self-absorption and money.” She winked at him. “How do I look?”

“More beautiful than the moon and stars.”

She sent him a burst of affection and then hurried away through the shadows back to Arwel’s party.

:Ro?: He kept the message on a tight beam so he didn’t trigger any of the grounder’s safety precautions.

:Where in the name of my ancestors are you?: Rowena demanded. :Mars is pacing and I almost bit my nails.:

:Don’t lie. You never do that.:

She an image of a thread she’d unwound from her socks. :We’re worried. And bored. Mostly bored. Are you done chasing shadows?:

:I’m staying here tonight.:

Rowena responded with a memory of her banging her head on the hull of the engine room.

:It’s not what you think. Selena is helping the Jhandarmi and I’m being a perfect gentleman.:

:I know what that means,: Rowena said caustically. :And I can’t imagine you have the energy to make their whole team that happy in one night.:

He smiled. :I’m a talented man.:

:You’re going to be a dead one if you-: Rowena cut herself short.

Titan waited, then pinged her. :Ro? Are you okay?:

There was the faintest tracery of contact, a simple message on a distress frequency.

He pinged Selena and felt the message break apart as soon as it left his shield. Someone was jamming fleet communications. They were under attack.

 

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BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 18 (Part 1)

TITAN

Start at Chapter 1

It was quiet downtown.

There were no generators running to keep the air pure in the ships; no family arguments spilling out of cargo holds to become fistfights on the rocks. On the horizon there was no wall, and no OIA building standing sentinel.

A light breeze ruffled luminescent leaves, pale and green, on the thin branches of the terraformed trees lining the road. Their soft light was enough frame the row of elegant homes, subdued visions of grounder wealth.

Caryll’s signature this here, but cycling, like she was walking in and out of a shield.

Titan raised an eyebrow and slipped on the Guardian Veil. A faint shimmer gave away a hidden shield over a large house in the middle of the block. There was a wide, inviting porch held up by white columns and three stories of windows.

There were smaller ships in Enclave.

He approached cautiously, testing the limits of the shield. The first layer was a scatter field meant to make people look away. It would discourage random intrusions but not much else. The next layer in—Titan jumped back, mentally stung. He’d wager a week’s pay that the next layer was set to kill anyone who touched the house.

It was not the kind of shield someone put over a Jhandarmi safe house during peacetime. It was a war shield meant to repel everything up to and including an orbital bombardment. Someone had been making a point.

The Carylls had a few shields like that, most of them tuned to attack only things or people with telekyen in their system. A groundsider was probably safe knocking on the door.

He wasn’t.

Rocking back on his heels, he grimaced. Teleporting home was probably the best option. Selena was safe enough behind that shield.

As long as she stayed there.

Her signal appeared again, inside the house next door to the heavily shielded one. When the Jhandarmi director had said there was a safe house in the area he hadn’t expected the two addresses to share a fence line. But the address was the one Kafftan’s victim had dropped.

Pulling his shields in close so that Selena wouldn’t sense him, he weighed his options. If she’d gone in it was to make contact with the Jhandarmi operative. It could mean nothing. It could mean trouble.

Titan hesitated, watching the movement of shadows in the windows of the house.

The door to the house opened, spilling light into the dark street. “Hey!” a figure in the doorway shouted. “You coming in, man?”

Titan tilted his head to the side.

“Party’s going raw!” The figured gestured wildly.

Telling himself it was due diligence, Titan approached, grateful he’d changed out of his uniform before going to meet Rowena. The long-sleeved shirt meant to wear under a pilot’s jacket and black cargo pants didn’t scream Fleet, although they probably weren’t the height of grounder fashion either.

As Titan drew closer, he could see the man, a tall and muscled man with blond hair pulled back in a bun. He was wearing shorts and nothing else.

Apparently, cargo pants made him over-dressed for this event.

The blond tipped his head. “You new in town?”

“I’m from Descent,” Titan said, a plausible lie. Hard for a Tarrin to check and he knew the accent. All he had to do was think back to Marshall’s first year at the Academy.

“Right!” The man held out his hand. “Arwel, Arwel Art and Design. Come on in. Did you bring swim gear?”

“Um… no,” Titan said as he stepped into the domed entry way. Life-size photographs of women lined the walls, all strikingly beautiful, all painted with elaborate body art.

“Stunning, aren’t they?” Arwel asked. “All mine.”

Titan raised his eyebrows. “All the women?”

“Oh!” Arwel’s eyes went wide in shock. “No, no, no. All the art. I painted them. I’m painting tonight too. Was that… Wasn’t that what you were expecting?”

An honest answer wasn’t going to work, so he found another lie. “I met a woman downtown in an art gallery and she mentioned she might be here. I found myself at loose ends this evening so…” Titan let him fill in the gaps.

“Brunette, blonde, or red head?” Arwel asked.

“Blonde.” Titan’s searched the gallery for Selena’s face, but she wasn’t on display.

Arwel’s face brightened into a wide smile. “Willowy blonde with fair skin and ocean-blue eyes?”

Titan nodded.

“Selena!” Arwel said. “She brings in the best international clients. She’s out back by the pool. I just finished her shoulder. Unless you’re an artist you probably won’t notice how flawless her skin is, but trust me, she’s the perfect canvas.”

“I’ve noticed she’s flawless.” In so many ways.

Arwel chuckled. “Yeah, good luck with that.” He patted Titan on the back. “That woman is married to her work. I have watched many a man and woman fly to that sun and be burned.”

“Moon.”

“What?”

“Selena means moon,” Titan corrected. “And I’m not Icarus. I doubt I’ll get burned.”

“That’s the right attitude.” Arwel clapped him on the back again. “Come on through the kitchen. There’s a guest bathroom with outfits over there if you feel like taking a dip. Have you been to an event like this before.”

Flight team parties probably didn’t count. “No.”

“It’s more a Tarrin thing, I think. This is a networking event. Jorjes Kerl of Kerl Investments is looking to hire new talent, so he scheduled with me. Anyone interested came come. I provide the venue, the food, the models, and everyone else gets to shine. You will notice the models are exceptionally food at getting your logo seen. Feel free to ask any of them about the advertisements painted on them. Everyone I hire is tested for memory and trained for sales. This is the least intrusive way to get your brand noticed by investors.” Arwel’s sales pitch rambled on.

Titan tuned him out, nodding where needed, as he assessed the situation.

The kitchen had been laid out with trays of food and drinks ready to be taken outside. Tidy packets of swim wear and towels were available for guests. He didn’t reach for one though Arwel made a point of offering the packet to him. Titan’d never learned to swim and didn’t see a reason to start now.

The gray-tiled kitchen flowed out to a seating area, then to a wide deck and a garden beyond. People in a variety of swim accessories moved between tables and lounging areas. Painted men and women worked the crowd, standing and posing in the lights before moving away again.

At the center of the garden was a waterfall, rushing over artfully arranged rocks into a jewel-blue pool lit from within. A plaster gem in an artificial paradise.

Arwel stepped up beside him, beaming at the stage he’d set. “Lovely, isn’t it? All the exotic colors of the islands without pesky things like traveling or insects.”

“It’s… something,” Titan agreed.

“Give it an hour,” Arwel said. “It’s early and no one’s relaxed yet. Once they’re done sorting out dominance and using up their best pick-up lines on my models they’ll start having fun. That’s when the real networking begins. Get two people chatting by the pool about what macroeconomics and a year later we have a new company in the commerce district. It’s magical!”

Titan didn’t even feign interest. Grounder commerce and capitalism were – thankfully – above his pay grade. All he was interested in was spotting Selena, and the Jhandarmi operative, before they spotted him.

A man in the crowd noticed Arwel on the patio and waved him over.

“Excuse me,” Arwel said. “I’ve got to go play host. If you need introductions, come find me.”

“I will. Thank you.” Titan nodded as Arwel walked away. A sweeper pass brushed against Titan’s shield like a cold breeze. In it he caught Selena’s now-familiar touch and an echo of concern. She was on guard, but not aware he was there. Yet.

It took all his focus to keep his shield from adjusting and melding with hers.

Behind him someone opened the patio door and then shut it with a slide and a snick. “Are you from Descent?”

“Yes,” Titan said as he turned.

Kaftan stood beside him. A little shorter than he’d seemed in the tunnels, bonier than most grounders, with a sandy stubble on his chin and red-rimmed eyes he looked more like a destitute dock worker than a thief and a killer. But it took all kinds.

“Didn’t I say I’d handle it?” Kaftan demanded, lips curling into a snarl. “Tell your lady I don’t need a bodyguard or a babysitter.”

Titan kept his face emotionless as a thousand possibilities flew through his mind. “I’m not here to do either,” he said carefully. “At the moment, I’m a casual observer.”

“Ha!” Kaftan stalked over to the ledge and gripped the railing like he meant to strangle it. “So you’re the cleaning crew.”

“Only if you need one.”

Kaftan’s right hand jerked to the front pocket of his pants, then darted away. “You can leave. Sonya and I had an agreement; she got what she wanted and I got what I wanted. Almost didn’t because of that fish-brained gizzard-eater who put a hit on the spacer.” He sneered. “It was me that made this work. Not you lot. Without me you’d still be sitting around panting after those parts. I made good on delivery. Any by-product is my profit, not your catch.”

“I’m not arguing with that,” Titan said calmly. “Still, this is a sale.”

“Yeah.” Kaftan shrugged. “What of it?”

Titan looked around. “Sales have buyers. Auctions have bidders.”

Again, Kaftan’s hand dropped to his pants pocket.

“I have money,” Titan said.

“Your own?”

“My employer has a far healthier account.” Carver was going to kill him. The guardian’s slush fund of grounder cash wasn’t enough to buy new office chairs let alone the information Kaftan was auctioning.

But Kaftan was already shaking his head. “Not happening. Rules is rules. Can’t do business with the same person twice in a row. It’s bad luck. Starts a pattern. Gets a man noticed.”

“There are different kinds of notice,” Titan said. “My employer is influential, powerful, wealthy.”

The thief’s eyes narrowed in pecuniary speculation.

“The authorities are only a problem if they can find you,” Titan said, dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. “With the right… friends… you won’t need back ally dodges and side hustles. You wouldn’t need to be guests at pay-as-you-go parties.”

Kafftan took a deep breath in, inhaling the possibilities. Then he stopped and shook his head. “No. No! Rules is rules. Besides, I have other things to do tonight.” He nodded to something in the distance.

Titan turned to look just as Selena stepped into view.

Creamy white skin and hair pale as moonlight… She was an alabaster goddess in a single piece of black fabric that Titan hoped wasn’t actually paint. Or maybe he hoped it was. Either way, she was all he could see.

His mouth went dry as Selena tied a sheer, black skirt around her waist and posed in one of the spotlights.

Her left shoulder was painted with a nebula and three shooting stars. When she turned, she was everything: night and stars, fire and magic, promise and hope.

Selena moved, breaking away to pose by the edge the pool. She took off her skirt, tossed it aside, and dove in.

Suddenly, Titan saw the merits in learning to swim.

Kaftan tapped the balustrade, oblivious to the exchange. “Lovely girl. Arwel says she’s here nearly every night. Pity, really, but she was in the parking garage earlier.”

Now that Titan looked at the shield running along Arwel’s eastern perimeter he recognized the familiar whorls of coding that were unique to Selena. A house next door. A job as a model. All those looks between her and Tyrling hadn’t stemmed from the Jhandarmi director’s frustration, they’d been coded orders.

“It won’t be a problem for long,” Kaftan said, misinterpreting Titan’s furious frown.

“Good,” Titan muttered.

Kaftan watched her. “It’s going to be a fun night.”

“Taking your victims home is messy,” Titan said. “Unprofessional. Your DNA will be all over her.”

“Don’t worry,” Kaftan said. “I’m good at making these things look like accidents.” He smoothed his hand over his pants. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to go circulate. Can’t get a good auction if you don’t have buyers frothing at the mouth.”

“Kaftan?” Titan said, stalling.

The man turned. “What? What I says goes. Done is done.”

“This is a side matter, something personal.”

Kaftan slowed and pivoted back to him. “I’m listening.”

“During this operation, my employer hired some local talent. Sent orders outside our usual chain of command. Me and my fellows had a bet about who’s name was to be rubbed out. Care to give me a hint? I can make it worth your trouble.”

“Shame I’m a thief, not a liar, I’d love to take your money. But I don’t know. The supplier said it would be easier for them if a certain officer of the law was scrubbed out. Would have put the city on high alert if any more of them dropped. It was bad for business. If the supplier wants to do something now, that’s their business.” Kaftan shrugged as he walked off.

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BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 15

TITAN

Start at Chapter 1

There was nothing about a second trip to the infirmary that made life better. The chief medic from Julia Cattoni had been called in and had lit into him. His captain he reamed him, and then Rowena had sent a blistering, invective-laced tirade threatening to finish the job if he didn’t stop getting nearly killed, and telling him they needed to talk as soon as he was free.

They said they yelled out of love, but what he really wanted from them was to let him sleep. But not until he saw Selena and made sure she was all right.

The Jhandarmi had been invited to Enclave and Carver had decided the old museum was a good place to hold the meeting. Titan stood with his back to a wall of pictures from the first landing and resisted the urge to pace.

A simple black Jhandarmi car pulled up with Tyrling and woman Titan didn’t recognize. Two more cars followed. All with Jhandarmi agents he didn’t know.

He’d expected Selena to be with them. She wasn’t in Enclave. She wasn’t in Tarrin, as far as he could tell. With her implant low she couldn’t have teleported far and there wasn’t a shield strong enough to hide her signal nearby.

“If you stop glaring, this might go better.” Her voice came from a shadowed corner of the room.

Titan spun around. “When’d you arrive?”

“A few minutes ago.” She looked fine. There were a few tiny scratches on her cheek, and her eyes looked tired, but she was alive and had a minor shield up.

A weight he didn’t realize he’d been holding fell away. “How are you?”

“Fine. Thank you. Marshall picked me up and did a scan to make sure I was fit for duty. She told me not to stand near any more bombs, but other than that everything checked out.”

That explained why he couldn’t find her. Marshall could do distance teleports with a passenger.

“How are you?”

“Perfect,” Titan lied. “A few bruises, a new scratch or two, but nothing major.” He kept a tight shield in place so she couldn’t scan him for injuries. “Are you ready to go in?”

She frowned at the gathering assembly. “As ready as I’m likely to be without twelve hours of sleep or some paid vacation.”

“Paid vacation? What’s that?”

“Nothing but fantasy.” She sighed. “Let’s go find out what Tyrling is looking so smug about.”

Titan had limited experience with war councils outside the strategy sessions Mal led in the Academy. There at least they’d had some precedent for dealing with strangers from other crews. The way Carver and Tyrling were circling each other it was clear they hadn’t established a working relationship yet.

The Jhandarmi circled like carrion birds, their suits muted grays and browns with spots of color and empty spaces where weapon holsters had hung. The Star Guard were uniformly dressed in their all-blacks, crew patches and rank pins flashing under the too-bright overhead lights.

Selena strode across the space drawing attention. “Director Tyrling, a pleasure to see you again. The conference room is in here.”

Everyone stilled, taking time to adjust their understanding of the power dynamics. And then there was an almost synchronized movement. The Jhandarmi split and went to the north end of the hall, the Star Guard to the south. Tyrling’s lieutenants followed him in and Titan fell into step behind Carver.

He took a seat next on Carver’s left.

Interesting, at least to him, was that Selena seated herself at the far end of the fleet’s side of the table. He thought Carver would want her closer. But maybe she was there to cover the door if things hit a flashpoint of tempers and pride.

The door closed with a mental push from someone and Titan felt a shield go up blocking most communication.  The Star Guard channels were still open.

Director Tyrling rested his arms on the table. “Commander Carver, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you. I had hoped we would someday, although I pictured happier circumstances.” For some reason his gaze went to Selena when he spoke.

Her face remained impassive.

“My associate, Agent Hartley,” Tyrling gestured to a woman with dark hair braided up into a mess of knots that ran like a crest down the center of her head, “is from our home office in Royan.  She has been briefed on our agreements with fleet. The rest are senior agents whose files I sent to you earlier.”

Carver nodded. “Guardian Sciarra and Captain Caryll you know. The other officers present represent the OIA, and concerned crews within the fleet. You’re free to speak openly in front of them.” Continue reading BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 15

BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 13

TITAN

Start at Chapter 1

“Nephew!”

His aunt’s voice knocked Titan out of the meditation that was distracting him from the inexpert stitches the Sabiha’s medtech was putting in his side. He stared up at the black ceiling dotted with green gems in the constellations of the Sciarra home system. “Hello, auntie,” he said with a resigned sigh.

Elea Sciarra stepped out of the shadows, her face an unreadable mask, her shields opaque. His mother’s younger sister was made of the same mold most Sciarra women came from: ebony skin, shining hair caught in thick, black braids that were pulled away from her face and coiled crown-like on her head, a face made of bony angles and focused lines. But, where his mother had an expression of polished stone, Elea had the small cracks that made her look human.

Smile lines around her eyes. The hint of creases around her mouth.

Right now her lips were creased in a frown.

“Captain?” Titan would have lowered his shields as a show of respect and submissiveness if he were still capable of making one.

The captain held up a tablet. “What is this?”

He frowned in confusion. “A tablet? Ma’am?”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m your oldest surviving relative, Ty, but I’m not senile. I meant: Why did you request information about a declaration of courtship from the database?”

“I couldn’t access my implant and I needed a distraction, ma’am.”

“Ma’am me one more time and I’ll turn this into a formal conversation and plant your butt in the brig.”

The medtech froze, ready to run if a fight broke out.

“Sorry, auntie.”

Elea nudged the tech. “Finish up, Dumaka. He’s already in enough pain.” She set the tablet down and held out her hand to do a scan. “Suns of the homeworld, boy. What did you get yourself into? There’s reports of a fight with a grounder, a bomb, and you come home looking like you went into a fight wielding a kitten!”

He closed his eyes. “It was unplanned.”

A hard hand smacked against his aching head. “You’re an officer, Titan! You’re supposed to plan!”

“I was supposed to be following up on a lead into the warehouse break-in. Nowhere in the mission brief was murder mentioned.”

“You were with someone from an allied crew, alone, and murder didn’t cross his mind?”

“No, auntie.”

Dumaka finished the stitches in his side and tied a knot. “You’ll need to keep it clean until your nanites repopulate,” he said in a soft voice. “No extreme activity, no exercise, and no…” He gulped, practically hyper-ventilating. “… no sex. For at least a week. The bandages will need to be changed every twelve hours.”

“Thank you, Dumaka,” Titan said. “I’ll be sure to take extra care not to rip your fine work.”

The younger man smiled gratefully. “I didn’t mean to be personal when I said…” He jerked his chin in a lurching nod.

“Sex?” Elea asked. “Dumaka, how many times had I told you this? The chief medic on the ship should know about the sexual activity of the crew. You keep us healthy. You need to know what we are doing with our bodies.”

“But Titan doesn’t-“ Dumaka’s bright green eyes went wide with fright. “I mean, I know you could, Commander.”

Elea sighed and patted Dumaka’s shoulder. “That’s… that’s probably good enough. Good try, Dumaka. Good try. You’re dismissed.”

Dumaka fled the medbay with graceless haste.

“I keep trying to build up his confidence and still.” She shook her head and sat down on the bed beside him as Titan sat up. “How bad do you feel?”

“I’ve definitely had worse. Even with Dumaka’s inexpert work.” He looked at his aunt. “We need to trade for a new medic. If something serious happened, he couldn’t handle this bay alone.”

Elea picked up the tablet again. “Is that what this was about? A new medic?” She shook the tablet at him as if the words would spill out onto the deck.

He winced and locked down every thoughts from the day. His aunt’s shield was close enough to his own that she picked up stray thoughts if he wasn’t careful. “It wasn’t for anything specific. I just had some questions because it came up in conversation.”

“Ty, I’ve known you since you were born. I was your first trainer. I was the one you went to when someone pulled you behind the training mats to steal a kiss because you were worried Damia would be angry.”

“My mother would have been,” Titan said. His mother would have been angry at the interruption and the fact he couldn’t defend himself against unwanted advances. But he’d been seven, still using a gauntlet instead of an implant, and worried he’d hurt someone. “You gave better advice anyway.”

“So why are you researching courtship and not looping me in on the conversation.”

“There’s not really a conversation to have yet.”

“A declaration of courtship is not something you spring on your favorite captain.”

But you aren’t my favorite captain, auntie. He bit his cheek to keep from smiling. “The individual in question has made it clear they aren’t ready to consider courtship yet.”

“Yet?” The captain pounced on the word. “You keep saying yet. When do they plan to be open to the idea?”

“She hasn’t told me that. Yet.”

Elea raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Is there a rival I need to be aware of? You did walk into a bomb today. I can’t stress enough how upsetting I find that.”

He shook his head trying to sort out what he’d seen and felt the day before. “… I think she’s unsure of my intentions and believes an alliance might be risky, politically.”

“Really?” The captain’s face fell into a neutral mask, then she blinked. “It isn’t Captain Marshall, is it?”

“No!”

Hermione Marshall was as far from his ideal spouse as the sun was from a blackhole.

Plus, there was the lingering sense that Marshall belonged to Mal – ancestors welcome him to the Lost Fleet. Eventually, Marshall would find a lover and he’d have to choke on the bitter gall of letting even that memory of Mal go. But, until that awful and probably eventful day, Marshall was logged in his mind as Mal Balaur’s problem.

Ancestors protect anyone else who tried to get near the ruthless woman.

His captain shrugged. “I’m not fond of all the crews out there, but, politically, the more allies we can gather the better. And we need new blood in the crew. She’d be welcomed.”

“That’s going to be a sticking point,” Titan said. “If she ever lets me near her, at least. She’s very high ranking in her crew.”

“Oh.” Elea looked at the tablet. “That’s why you’d need a declaration? To ensure that there weren’t any last minute surprises if you decided to pursue marriage?”

“I think the officer in question would understand that I was serious if I made a formal declaration. Flirting makes her suspicious. Or repels her,” he admitted the fear. “It’s hard to tell.”

“Does she seek out your company, laugh at your jokes when no one else does, and compliment you on regular basis? I’ve found those are good indicators of interest.” She smiled. “Although, you know my relationship history. Damia’s little sister. The mousy Sciarra engineer.”

“And the captain who killed her captain to take control,” Titan said with a grin. “If you weren’t my aunt, that kind of personal resume would put you on my radar.”

She chuckled. “I imagine the officer you wish to court is equally fierce.”

“In many ways. But with fewer kills despite being in the war. She was primarily a shielder, I think.”

Or he’d thought.

Until he’d caught a glimpse of Selena’s memories. She’d had the kill shots so many times and not taken them. “She has good qualities though.”

“I should hope.” His captain’s enthusiasm had cooled enough for him to notice. “I also hope you’ll remember that the crew look up to you, Ty. If you bring home someone because she’s beautiful, and not an asset to the crew, there’ll be talk. We’re trying, but we’ve always been a working crew. There’s no room here for you to have a pretty sidepiece.”

He nodded. “I know. I’ll be careful where I bestow my affections.” His implant pinged. “I need to go, captain, if you have no further need of me. Carver wants me in the offices for a debrief.”

His captain smiled in understanding. “Be careful out there.”

“I will, ma’am.” He stood, grimacing at the pain. “I’ll be very careful.”

*** Continue reading BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 13

BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 11

TITAN

Start at Chapter 1

They’d gone beyond the perimeter of the art district and the walls were changing back to the concrete foundations of heavier buildings. Whoever they were following, they were moving fast. Once or twice they’d rounded the corner and seen a light up ahead, but then it turned a corner leaving them trailing again. Titan was about to turn the latest corner when he heard a low voice indistinct in the darkness.

Another voice answered, higher in pitch but still low enough to suggest a man.

Selena leaned forward, peering around the edge of the wall. :Kaffton and someone else. Their lights are pointed down.:

He felt her frustration as well as his own. :Do you see anything that looks like a list? Papers? Data chip?:

:Nothing yet. Charging in does us no good unless we get the data.:

:Let’s get Kaffton and then get the data from him,: Titan argued. :This is not the time and place for Caryll kindness.:

:We can’t kidnap grounders.:

He frowned. :Even if we give them to the Jhandarmi? I could tie a bow or something…:

A sound he’d never heard before cracked through the hull. Titan froze, watching the ceiling.

:Gun!: Selena ran away from him towards the sound.

There was no choice but to follow. Heavy shields up he ran after her towards the fallen man.

Kaffton didn’t see them perhaps, but the dust was enough to warn him. He fired twice, and then ran.

Selena lit up, glowing like the moon as she knelt beside the man. “Dead. He’s not in the database. Crack my hull, Tyrling isn’t going to like this.”

“What’s he got on him?” Titan asked, keeping the shields up and watching the path Kaffton had taken.

Selena patted the man down. “Nothing. Nothing.” Something crunched audibly when she patted his hip pocket. “Something?” She reached in and pulled out a thin strip of paper. “An address in one of the newer areas. Nouveau Riche, style makers, and heirs… it’s a good place to mingle at a party and do some business on the side. Lost Fleet take Kaffton why did he shoot?”

“Didn’t like the terms maybe?” Titan guessed.

“Or didn’t want to wait to get paid.”

She shook her head. “This is the man we followed from the dead drop. Kaffton wouldn’t have handed over the list if he hadn’t been paid. And he’d have no reason to shoot a potential client.” She looked at the man’s face. “We need to get above ground and have the Jhandarmi ID him. Where’s the last place we saw an exit?”

Titan closed his eyes and visualized the map he’d recorded as they’d followed. “We’re near the center of town. Heavy shields above, and the last open entrance we saw was over two klicks back.”

With a swipe of her hand Selena projected the map of the city over the map of the tunnels and the map of the blind spots for Tarrin security. Here, over by the old hospital and the city’s original morgue. They had six sublevels at one point. I bet there’s an exit there.”

Why dig so far down?”

She looked up in surprise. “Officially? If you ask the Tarrins it was to keep the bodies cool. Caryll database says that some anti-imperialists were housed there in the early days of colonization. Icedell was meant to be a penal colony. Descent was going to be a vacation spot for Imperial workers, the workforce would come from the penal colony stock.”

“I never heard that.”

“The Carylls were sent to set it up, originally. But the captain who led our armada didn’t think it was feasible. After the wormhole collapsed they saw no reason to pursue it.”  The soft glow that surrounded her changed to a cold, deep sea green and fell over the dead body. “That’ll keep him until we can get someone down here. I have facial scans and fingerprints.”

“I’d been about to suggest that.” Titan crossed his arms. Fingerprinting a victim was a rather esoteric practice these days. It had gone out of use when implants became common.

Selena stood and brushed a loose strand of hair back from her eyes. “Let’s go. I need a signal.”

The connection between them filled with schematics of implants as Selena quietly picked apart the design trying to find a way to send a signal past the layers of rock and shielding.

“We could just break the shield,” he muttered. It was a very, very good shield. Anomalously good, in fact. There wouldn’t be any slipping through without triggering an alarm. But that’s why begging for forgiveness had been invented. “Who put this shield up?” he asked as the corridor narrowed.

Complete lockdown. The flow of shared information was cut dead. Selena’s eyes went wide with projected innocence. “I don’t know.” She shook her head.

:Liar.:

“I can’t say?”

The gun sound cracked again. They’d caught up with Kaffton.

Habit made Titan reach out mentally to pin the man down, but Kaffton had no telekyen on him.

Selena ran forward, enhancing her shield as she moved and presenting only a blurred shadow for Kaffton to see.

Kaffton fired again. The bullets ricocheted away, sparking off the walls as they bounced. Perhaps panicking, Kaffton ran. He turned a corner, moving out of sight and there was a heavy groan of a metal door closing.

Turning the corner in pursuit they saw the sliver of daylight vanish with a thud.

“No!” Selena ran up to the door and banged her fist on it. She wedged her shoulder against it and pushed.

Focusing on a brute shield Titan followed, pushing with all the weight he could concentrate on the door.

It squeaked, caved in at the center, but didn’t budge.

“We need to go back the other way,” Titan said. “There’s not another exit near here.”

“I do not have time for that.”

Selena’s face was suffused with rage, her eyes glowing a bright stellar blue. She reached her hand out and ran it along the door looking for a weak point.

“We have to-”

She clenched her hand into a fist and the door crumpled in on itself like a wadded linen.

Titan stared in disbelief at the tiny ball of metal hanging suspended in the air. “That’s…”

“An opening,” her voice was a dangerously low growl of fury and command.

Scared by Selena Caryll… even if he replayed the memory for his crew no one would believe him. “I am so glad you learned that trick after the Landing.”

“I didn’t.”

The crumbled door spun on its axis over her palm and then shot ahead, flying across the empty parking garage on an arching trajectory. It cut a deep groove in the stone floor as it landed.

An attack like that… “Can you do that with all metal?”

“I can do it with anything,” Selena said as she stalked toward the entrance.

“Please don’t crumple the suspect. We need to question him.”

Her shield spiked, flipping from defense to full offensive attack. And then she took a deep breath and seemed to return to normal. “I’ve lost him anyway.” She pulled out her phone. “I’m calling the Jhandarmi in. We need to get this area locked down and searched.”

Angrily glaring at her phone she continued walking toward the exit.

:You’re inviting another attack, pacing out there.:

:Let him try.: There was a quick flash-thought of Kaffton attacking and the metal of his bullets stretching and looping to become binders for his legs.

:There’s not enough metal.:

Selena shot him an annoyed look. :A girl can dream.:

“Tyrling, yes, it’s Caryll. I need a team at my location ASAP. We have an unidentified male victim and Kaffton is at large and armed.” As she listened to the Jhandarmi’s response she glared out at the quiet buildings outside. “Understood, sir. I’ll expect you shortly.”

:They’re on their way. Do you see any movement?:

:None. He could have gone up, or kept running. There aren’t many security blindspots here. We’ll find him.:

There was something in the way that she continued pacing that made it clear that it wasn’t just Kaffton’s escape bothering her. There was something else, a private goal she wasn’t sharing.

Titan crossed his arms and waited. He wasn’t quite as good as Rowena at getting secrets out of people, but he would get them eventually. But he wasn’t feeling patient.

Reaching out with a thought he tugged at Selena’s arm.

Her shoes scuffed the ground as she paused and turned. She tilted her head to the side and he felt rather than saw her confusion.

Words seemed inadequate for what he wanted. It was safety, but something more. If she’d been crew, he would have opened her arms to hold her, check her for physical injuries. If physical touch wasn’t allowed, he wanted at least physical proximity,

With an understanding half-smile, she walked over to him. “You’re being a little overprotective.”

“You’re being a little reckless. I’m trying to balance out this little partnership we have.”

Her shoulder bumped his arm. “If you think this was reckless it’s a good thing you slept through the war.”

“War is different.”

She shook her head.  “No. It’s all the same.”

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BODIES IN MOTION: Chapter 9

TITAN

Start at Chapter 1

Fog curled over the hypertram tracks as the steady rain beat a dreary tattoo on the roof. A feeling of alien otherness consumed the station. The walls were stretched too high, the passageways felt too narrow, the people who scurried past with their eyes averted were thin, short, and silent. Titan looked around with a frown. These were the coordinates Caryll has given them in their brief conversation. He was dressed for the mission. But she was missing and he felt like an over-sized idiot.

The timepiece on his wrist was heavy, cold, and useless. The black sweater he was wearing was clinging in the damp air and leaving him chilled not warmed. Caryll didn’t seem like the type to play mind games with him, but is she didn’t appear in the next five minutes he was tossing the tickets in the nearest recycling bin and teleporting back to Enclave.

He turned again, watching the crowds streaming through the main checkpoint and lobby, and his heart stuttered as his other senses flew on high alert.

Cutting through the throng like a shark in the shoals a woman in tight black pants and a silvery-blue shirt rivetted his attention. Her pale, moon-blonde hair was swept up in a sleek ponytail, and even at a distance he saw the dark makeup lining her eyes. She looked up, and his shield cracked open. :Selena.:

:Guardian.: She sliced through the mob of passengers, sleek and lethal, and took the stairs up to the boarding platform as the hypertram pulled in behind him.

Titan held her ticket out. “First-class passenger car, like you asked.” He pinged her with a question mark.

“Thank you.” She watched the slowing tram. :It makes us visible and trackable.:

:I never thought those would be good things.: The face of his watch caught the light of the tram and he noticed it perfectly matched the blue of her shirt. A small smile tugged at the corner of his lip.

Selena turned to him, the bare hint of an answering smile on her lips. “Did you have time to review the data I sent you?”

“I did.” He nodded as the proximity between them allowed their shields to meld. His heart rate dropped to beat time with hers. “Did you bring the identification?”

A whistle sounded and over the station loudspeaker the boarding was announced.

Titan took the lead, and noticed a new weight in his pant’s pocket as he approached the gate. Sliding his hand into the pocket he felt a heavy wallet. :That was a neatly done teleport.:

Selena’s answering thoughts were fuzzy, distracted and tense.

They found their seats near the front of the tram, a comfortable, semi-private booth perfumed by the bright coral flowers in the built-in vase and a lingering scent of rain. Titan let Selena pick her side, back to the front of the train, and sat across from her. “Is everything all right?” Her emotions were swirling just out of reach and he couldn’t gauge her mood.

She pulled on a black jacket cut to emphasize her slender build and shrugged. “I expected things to resolve faster than this. Being used…” Her lips curled in an angry grimace. “I don’t like being played the fool.”

“No one does.”

Another whistle sounded, lower this time, and the doors to the hypertram slammed shut with authoritative finality.

“This should be interesting,” Titan murmured.

Selena’s nose wrinkled in disagreement. “An inefficient waste of time.”

“But remarkably advanced considering what the colonies started with.”

“I suppose.”

The hypertram slid out of the station, the outside scenery blurring as they raced passed.

Titan put a minor sound shield up, not enough to block out everything, but enough that no one passing by would hear their conversation. “Have you been on one of these before?”

“A few times,” Caryll said, still holding her emotions tight. “We landed in the port outside Tarrin but for a few weeks we were looking at housing some of the crews here in Bellis. The OIA job gave me the right to travel and purchase land and houses, but there was too much push back. The grounders were scared of us, and the fleet was scared of losing its identity.” She shrugged.

“Did you consider taking your crew here?”

The look she gave him was icy. “Briefly. Before they left.”

A memory spilled out over her shield, her fears, and her hopes as she bought apartments for the nearly 600 Carylls who had survived, of seeing a bright future, and then learning they’d betrayed her.

Titan sent thoughts of sympathy mixed with affection. Losing his parents in the war had been hard enough even though they’d been distant in the final years. He couldn’t imagine losing his entire crew.

She scowled at him. “I don’t need your pity.”

“I’m not offering any. I was trying to let you know I understood a bit about betrayal. My last captain tried to kill me, you know.” Neit had been his mother’s little brother, his uncle, and an unholy terror he was happy he helped Elea kill.

“That’s not quite the same.”

“No. Not quite,” he agreed.

A woman wearing a red vest over a pale gold shirt and black slacks stepped beside their seats wearing a name tag that read: JAFFIA.

Titan dropped the sound shield. “Yes?”

“Would you care for a complimentary snack? This tram offers a selection of the finest Bellis food products to all our first-class guests.”

Caryll sent an affirmative signal but didn’t turn away from the window.

“Yes, thank you,” Titan said.

The woman smiled brightly and brought over a basket with the red, black, and gold Bellis flag on it. “Enjoy your morning,” she said.

After putting the sound shield back Titan picked through the food. “Five Winds bramble jam. Five Winds sausage. Five Winds bread. I feel like I’m missing a joke.”

“The Five Winds was the first colonial ship to land on this continent,” Selena said.

“I thought it landed in Tarrin?”

She shrugged and looked over at the food. “Both Tarrin and Bellis claim the ship landed in their borders. Tarrin even has part of it on the north end; they use it as a concert hall. But realistically the ground here is too swampy ten months of the year and it either landed on the beach near Enclave or further north near Kivalina.” Her shields stayed tight.

“I don’t think anyone appreciates how much you gave up when the Persephone was lost.”

“Not lost,” Selena corrected. “Lost would be forgivable. I gave up the Persephone. Intentionally let her crash. All for strangers. If I’d lost her in battle it would have been a tragedy. But giving up? The fleet will never accept that.” She turned her attention back to the window.

He leaned back in his seat. “Do you know what my penance was after the war?”

“I didn’t really expect your captain to make you do anything. She took the command with your help, and you weren’t in the war. Officially.”

“True.” Officially he hadn’t been much of anything. Unofficially he’d been in the first attack on the planet. It was a fact he hoped he’d never need to share with her.

He weighed what to say to her. See how far we have fallen, the forgotten generation, the children of distant stars.

Rowena’s words echoed in his mind, “The fleet’s been dead for years. The next step is all of us leaving Enclave and becoming grounders. That’s it. That’s the only option other than mass suicide.”

Here lies a sailor, enlisted in the Lost Fleet too soon. May their name never be forgotten. Death is their captain now. Death their ever-sure companion. The words to a sailor’s dirge older than the fleet.

If he accepted Rowena’s prediction, there was no point in saying anything else. But…

Under the table he rolled up his left sleeve and ran his thumb down the thick, silver grooves in his skin. He should have died in that crash. His implant had overload and he’d never found an explanation for why the electrical overload ended at his elbow instead of following his nervous system to his brain.

Maybe his ancestors had blessed him. Or maybe Death was a coward. Either way, he wouldn’t be a Sciarra if he was willing to go down without a fight.

Danger to the left, danger to the right, ahead a certain death, and behind a certain fight.

The fleet needed a third option. They needed someone like Selena Caryll, someone who could navigate the city-states and see ways to integrate traditions. She’d had a plan once, and he had a feeling that it was the same plan he needed now.

Which meant he had to win her trust.

He sent out a small pulse along their shared shield, a polite request for attention.

Selena glanced at him, expression disinterested.

“Elea, my aunt and captain, saw being Mal Balaur’s second at the Academy as crime enough. My penance was making a projection of what would have happened in the Balaur attack succeeded. I wrote a 1100-page treatise on why following bad orders is horrible using that information and other historical examples. Every year, on the anniversary of the first battle, I address all the under 20’s in our crew.”

“Sounds horrifying,” Selena said without any emotion.

“It made me suicidal,” Titan admitted. “I realized that if Balaur’s attack had gone as planned, the planet would have been uninhabitable and we would have all died within 37 months. Starvation would have killed anyone who didn’t commit suicide.”

That got her attention. She turned, brow furrowed in confusion as she shook her head. “You don’t know that for sure. Balaur may not have attacked in the end.”

“I saw the battle plans.”

Her eyes narrowed “From the medical ward?”

“Someone I knew had a copy.”

“You can say Rowena. Everyone knows she has the best intel.”

He smiled in comfirmation. “Mal sent her a copy at some point. I think he realized something was off but couldn’t pinpoint what. The Balaur projections assumed the strike would free the orun deposit in the south sea.”

“There’s no math to support that.”

“The older Balaurs were better at intimidating underlings and shouting orders than they were at running figures. But I doubt they did even the basic research. Old Balaur ran on pure ego.” The rot had run deep in that crew, ancestors forgive them. “If you hadn’t given up the Persephone, we’d all be dead,” Titan said quietly. “And I don’t think everyone’s ever thanked you.”

“No,” she admitted. “And I doubt they ever will.”

“Thank you.” He backed the words with a feeling of gratitude and hope.

Selena had accented her high cheekbones with a silvery-blue blush that matched her shirt, and as she blushed the color leaned toward the palest amethyst. She bit her lip, then shook her head. “I wish you wouldn’t thank me. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t hate myself for giving up the Persephone. It was my duty. The best way to save the maximum number of lives. And I hate myself for it.”

“You shouldn’t. It was a risk, but you survived.”

She looked in his eyes, opened enough of a channel to let him feel the weight of the memories she was hiding. There was nothing there but despair. “I didn’t survive. I died with my ship. Lost everything. It took a while for my crew to leave, but they were as good as dead when I went into that battle. I failed them. I failed my parents, my ancestors. There’s nothing left.”

He reached across the table and took her hand. “You think that. I know, I see that memory. But there’s something else there too. The seed of something. From the ashes of defeat come-“

“- the greatest victories.” She finished the quote for him and pulled her hand away. “Platitudes won’t give me the future I want.”

“And, what do you want?” This was where faith kicked in. Part of him knew what she would say because it was what everyone wanted. Part of him was terrified that she’d given up hope like Rowena.

“My ship. A new ship, I suppose. A crew.” She drew in a breath and squared her shoulders. “I want the fleet back. I want to be part of something where I’m respected instead of mocked. I want a fleet that thinks about protecting what we know is left of humanity rather than trying to destroy it with petty in-fighting and ridiculous wars.” She sighed. “It’s impossible. Like asking for the sun, and moon, and stars.”

The last time he’d felt this happy had been the day he’d learned Rowena and Mal weren’t being executed. It felt like the first time he’d flown solo. Or like falling in love. “All right.”

“All right?” Her laugh was sharp and bitter. “All right what?”

“You want the fleet back, so we get the fleet back.”

Selena looked at him like he’d lost his mind. “Is your hull cracked? Did you spend the night breathing in engine fumes?”

“I’m serious.”

“You can’t be serious, Sciarra. Ships aren’t something you wish into existence. You can’t say, ‘Let there be purple unicorns!’ and have them grazing in the park. The fleet is fundamentally broken. If there were a way to fix it, trust me, I would have found a solution. I’ve been obsessing over this since the day I lost the Persephone.”

“No one thought Old Baular could be stopped, but you managed.”

She rolled her eyes and looked back out the window. “There were other ways to stop him. Most of them involved a catastrophic loss of life though. So here we are.”

“Look up real quick.”

Selena looked up into the blue sky where the first few wisps of storm clouds were visible on the horizon. “Am I supposed to be seeing anything?”

“The moon.”

“What?” She frowned at Sciarra. “Everyone knows you can’t see the moon during the daytime here. It’s not reflective enough.”

From his data banks he pulled an image of a page from a child’s storybook, a woman drwn all in shades of white, and blue, and silver standing against the gray background between a brown woman and blue man. “Once upon a time, Ground and Sky had a beautiful daughter, pale and fair,” he quoted.

“I know the story! What’s the relevance?”

He sent her twin images, one of the moon in her pale dress standing next to the golden sun, outshone and ghostly. Then the same image of the moon woman standing with the embodiment of night, dark and handsome. “When the moon was with the sun, no one could see her brilliance. She had to move to the night so everyone could appreciate her. The moral of the story always was: one small change can make a big difference.”

Selena twitched an eyebrow up. “I thought the moral was: don’t date abusive people who want to overshadow you.”

“That too.” He leaned forward. “We could work together. Be allies. The Sciarras are still a warmonger crew. Limited privileges. Limited access to the world outside Enclave, but eventually we all know that will fall apart. Either the trapped crews will rebel, or the allied crews will have to bend. Someone has to forgive first.”

Her eyes grew cold. “The other crews are all waiting for me to fold. They’re waiting for me to realize I can’t survive alone so that I’ll come begging for refuge. Take a lower rank. Offer then some priority Caryll tech. Something like that. Pardon me if I’m suspicious that you just are here offering to work with me for free on anything. No strings attached.”

“I have crew and tech. I have respect from most the fleet. What I don’t have is a single person who believes there’s a future for the fleet. Except for you.”

She laughed in surprise. “Me? You think I’m optimistic about our future?”

“You’re still here, despite everything. You still care. The fleet needs that. I need that. Everyone around me is willing to give up without a fight, I won’t, but I can’t do this alone.”

Selena turned to the window, looking more like the Moon in the child’s storybook than she could have imagined. “You’re asking a lot of a stranger.”

“I’m asking a lot of a friend,” Titan said. “But I’ll make it worth it.”

A whistle cut through the sound shield and he realized they were approaching the stop at Tarrin.

With a practiced air Selena erased the conflicted emotions from her face. She turned to him, looking as impassive as stone. “I’ll think about. For now, we have a job to do.”

It wasn’t a NO. He pulled out the wallet she’d given him and checked his identity. “Ti Tan of Descent. I work for the Carrilloni Combine?”

She pulled a business card from her breast pocket. “Selena Carrilloni, tech and medical supplies, at your service.”

“Carrilloni? A variant of Caryll?”

“The name my non-fleet ancestors used when they settled on Descent. The line was dormant, but I was able to resurrect it for business purposes. All it takes is a little bit of money and a genetic scan. Half the fleet probably has claims to titles and properties on the planet.”

“That bit of news does not help me convince everyone that the fleet can stay together.”

Selena leaned forward, for the first time finally engaging with him. “If you learned anything at the Academy, it should have been that we need to circulate our people more. Marshall went head to head with the best the fleet had and burnt our engines hard. Some of the people in Enclave need to step out. They were born fleet, but they weren’t born to be like us. Maybe they’ll be artists, or musicians, or poets, or bankers, but they deserve the choice to not be in the stars. They deserve the chance to choose both, or neither, or some third option we haven’t thought of yet. For that, I’m willing to fight.”

The tram rolled to a stop.

Titan stood and held out a hand for Selena. “Miss Carilloni.”

“Mister Tan.” She took his hand and stood. “Shall we go cause trouble?”

“That would be delightful.”

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